As the oldest of five children, Jim Nelson learned to be “loud and noticeable” from an early age. In fact, he says, “I was pretty dramatic from the get-go.”
His dramatic personality translated naturally into theater performance.
“I think I was interested in performing the moment I took my first breath,” Nelson says. “I used to watch TV shows and make up my own scenes based on them and impose on friends to play them out.”
He was a fan of “campy sci-fi” shows such as Lost in Space and Land of the Giants. He also did a mean imitation of Walter Brennan’s walk from the 1950s sitcom The Real McCoys.
His penchant for the spotlight wasn’t born just out of a need to be noticed, however. It was bred into him. “My mother performed and took acting classes when she was very young,” he says. “My paternal grandfather, Raleigh Nelson, was a comedian in the Vaudeville circuit. He was ornery and had the biggest, heartiest laugh of anyone I’ve known.”
He attended local shows from a young age, starting with a Youtheatre production that featured a classmate of his. He says the first “big person” show he saw was Hello, Dolly! starring Rosy Ridenour (Dolly), the late Wayne Schaltenbrand (Cornelius) and Dan Butler (Barnaby) at the now-defunct Franke Park Outdoor Theatre.
As much as he appreciated attending theater, Nelson was surprisingly late to the game of performing himself. He attended Elmhurst High School but did not participate in any school productions, and his first theatrical audition – for Pal Joey at Arena Dinner Theatre – was less than stellar.
“I didn’t make it,” he says. “I made the mistake of going in without really knowing what I was doing, including singing a song that didn’t fit me or the show. Live and learn.”
And learn, he did.
“I took tap, ballet, and jazz at the Fort Wayne Ballet so I could work on becoming good chorus material,” he says. This led to an audition for The Music Man at the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre in 1976, and he was cast as a featured dancer.
Under director Richard Casey and choreographer Mary K. Perkins, he worked harder than he ever had before. “We were there every night, Sunday through Friday, rehearsing our hearts out,” he recalls. “I made lifelong friends from that experience.”
In addition to the friendships he made, he learned the value of discipline and hard work in putting a production together.
“You were expected to be on time, warmed up and ready to go at the start of the rehearsal,” he says. “Being sick was not an option. If you slacked, your reputation suffered. I cherish that about [Casey] because he modeled and nurtured a respect for the work. He had high expectations and held you responsible.”
The lessons sometimes came with a price.
“The downside was he didn’t seem to have a lot of respect for your ‘day job,’” he says. “Tech rehearsals could last until 2 a.m., and I had to be at work six hours later.”
Nelson says that although directors in Fort Wayne no longer hold such rigid standards (a positive thing, he says), he still owes a lot to directors like Dick Casey and Larry Life “for showing me the sweat it takes to put on a production.”
Nelson continued his theater education, earning a bachelor of arts in theatre/performance from IPFW in 1988. He decided not to make theater his life’s work, however, and earned a masters degree from Ball State University in speech-language pathology in 1996.
Today he works in the public school system, but he says speech therapy and theater have a lot in common.
“What I feel I use most frequently [in my job] is theatricality to keep my kids interested and challenged with what they are doing,” he says. “If [a session is] getting too serious or bogged down, I try to raise the mood with a more animated, fun activity which is entertaining and educational.”
In the meantime, Nelson has continued performing as a hobby. He has worked with the majority of the city’s theaters, but he considers Arena Dinner Theatre his “home base.”
“I love the intimacy of [Arena],” he says. “I love the people who work there, on the board, in the shop and in the box office. The executive director [Brian Wagner] is one of my best friends. They work very hard to produce quality theater.”
He also has fond memories of working with the IPFW Dept. of Theatre over the years. “I especially loved working with Larry Life, because we did some timely and sometimes controversial theatre,” he says. “Many of the shows sparked emotions and created dialogue, which is what theatre is supposed to do.”
In 1986 they staged The Normal Heart.
“It was a new play about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and how it impacted a group of gay men,” he says. “That was an amazing, emotional and satisfying experience, and I learned so much from it. My character, Mickey, has a nervous breakdown on stage during Act 2, and Larry guided me every step of the way during that scene. I had never done anything that dramatic in my life. Emotionally, it opened a lot of doors for me acting-wise. I wanted to test my limits.”
His limits were tested during one performance on a night when emotions were running particularly high. “I could feel myself going over the edge a bit,” he says. “It was scary, but Larry told me later, ‘Now you know how far is too far.’”
Another space he loves is First Presbyterian Theater where he was cast in the lead role in the 2014-15 season opener The Foreigner.
With all the roles he’s played over the years (he estimates it’s been between 60 and 80), he says that choosing his favorite role “is like asking which kid is my favorite.”
He cites the role of Sam Byck in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins as his most emotionally challenging. “Sam Byck attempted and failed to kill Richard Nixon in 1974 by attempting to hijack a jet and crashing it into the White House,” Nelson says. “He made audiotapes to send to famous people, and the rage level in these monologues went from zero to 60 within a matter of seconds and then back down to zero just as quickly. He was tough. Fun, but tough.”
His current character – Charlie in The Foreigner – is a completely different animal from Sam Byck. In the early stages of rehearsals, he says, he worked to “map out Charlie’s character growth from the beginning of the play – ‘shatteringly, profoundly boring’ – to the end when he has come into his own.”
As rehearsals commenced, he collaborated with director Christopher J. Murphy to find more character nuances together. “Rehearsals are a great place to play and try different ideas,” he says.
Nelson has collaborated with Murphy many times over the years.
“I love working with Chris,” he says. “I trust him and his vision, and I always know he will do what it takes to make a production everything it should be.”
He refers to the cast – which includes theatre veterans Susan Domer, Emily Arata, Joel Grillo, Reid Henry, Robb Scrimm, and Adam Kelley – as “a very creative bunch” and says the set has “a very fun, relaxed atmosphere.”
As experienced an actor as Nelson is, he still gets nervous at auditions. “I just tell myself to keep my head on and do [my] best,” he says. “The director is just trying to get a sense of you as a character. It’s not a full-blown performance, and they aren’t expecting one.”
Performances aren’t honed even in the early stage of rehearsals. It can take weeks for the actors to feel comfortable in their character’s skin and to discover how they fit into the world of the play. Nelson says in the beginning of rehearsal he concentrates most of his effort on learning his lines. As the lines become more ingrained, he begins finding his own personal connection with his character.
“That’s my way in,” he says, “and then I build off of that.”
Nelson says the true satisfaction of acting is delving into a character and discovering and building his relationships with other characters.
“I love actors who come prepared to work and aren’t afraid to play and try things,” he says. “Fort Wayne has a great community of actors, and I feel very lucky to get the opportunity to work with so many of them.”